About the book
Tell me all your darkest fantasies...
Lady Diana Allen, daughter of the Earl of Estnell, has spent the better part of her life avoiding her father’s lectures on finding a husband. Determined to live her own life, she resolves to keep her head high and her last name intact. That is until she meets a Duke whose eyes rob her of her will to do anything but love him.
Isaac Campbell is plagued by nightmares of his father’s passing and visions of revenge on the Allens. Starting with the Earl’s daughter. A goal that seems harder by the minute, for his demons fall silent around her and all he can hear is the hum of his desire for her.
But in this sick game of betrayal, there are no winners.
And bad things come in threes. One, Diana’s heart is shattered when she finds out about Isaac’s plan. Two, Isaac is terrified when she goes missing. Three, realization dawns that both have been pawns in a chess game two decades in the making. And they just became expendable...
Isaac remembered the murder of his father as though it had happened that very day. It was terrifying and tragic, and it set the course for the rest of his life. It had all started when his father had a visit from an old friend, and no matter how many times he thought it through, he could never change the outcome.
It was early afternoon. Joshua Campbell, the Duke of Gallonon hiccoughed, drunk again, but laughing loudly. His friend, Henry, had arrived hours earlier, and they had spent the day talking of life and love and London.
Isaac’s watchful eyes fell on them, dreaming of the day he, too, would be old enough to sit and drink all afternoon, fat on life and happy with it. They seemed such good friends, and the Duke gazed at Henry with a brotherly love that greatly appealed to Isaac. He wanted that with his own brother.
“I do believe that the brandy is stronger than usual,” Joshua said and hiccoughed again. Henry laughed and patted his friend on the knee.
“No, Joshua,” he said, a drunken slur in his own voice. “We’ve just drunk far too much.”
“Tosh,” Joshua said, hiccoughing again. “No such thing. What are men to do of an afternoon if not get drunk with their closest friend and ally?”
Twelve-year-old Isaac sat a little straighter and smiled at both men, eager to be involved. How he would love to sit at their table, talking of adult things and drinking with them—and why not? He was almost an adult now, himself. But his attention was pulled away by his irritating and needy brother, two years younger than him but demanding and irksome.
“Isaac, come and play outside,” Thomas said. “It’s boring in here.”
“No,” Isaac hissed. “We’re having a nice afternoon without you children. Go and play on your own.”
Thomas pouted, his bottom lip stuck out in a sulk, but Isaac did his best to ignore him, to put childish thoughts from his mind
“And those daughters of yours,” Joshua asked. “They are well?” The redness of his chubby cheeks matched the color on the tip of his nose, and his broad smile seemed never ending. Isaac wished he could make his father as happy as these afternoons seemed to.
“They are my life, Joshua,” Henry said, his eyes sparkling with true love. “Such intelligence, such wit. I am very lucky to have them, and my darling wife, too.”
“Ah yes, Lady Kitty. You are lucky to have such a looker,” Joshua said with a wink. “I have often thought to take another wife—my boys are in need of a new mother, certainly—but I am sure I could never find one as good as my Emmeline. She had it all, including in the bedroom, if you get my meaning.”
“Joshua,” Henry reprimanded, but the two burst into childish guffaws.
“Father’s friend is fat,” Thomas whispered with a giggle, pulling Isaac’s attention from the adult conversation.
“No fatter than Father,” Isaac replied with a shrug.
“And he smells bad.”
“Thomas,” Isaac remonstrated but with a smirk on his lips, a copy of his father’s. “That’s mean.” He pushed him over playfully, so that Thomas rolled onto his back on the intricate rug, laughing loudly. Play fighting, but it was neither the time nor the place, not when they had guests.
“Boys! You are being noisy, and rude to our guest.”
“It wasn’t me, Father,” Isaac said, and he climbed to his feet. Joshua smiled down at his son, his hands folded over his rotund belly, and he laughed.
“You will make a fine politician, telling brazen untruths like that. Come here, My Boy.”
Isaac moved to stand near his father, his eyes gleaming in delight. Joshua stretched his arm around his son and pulled him in close, patting him on the back with his pudgy hand. Isaac wrinkled his nose against the smell of brandy on his father’s breath, but he felt as though he’d finally won a place in this special club.
The small round table between the two gentlemen was littered with the detritus of a decadent afternoon. The brandy decanter stood almost empty, the stalks from grapes had been thrown thoughtlessly, and two plates held the dregs of the cold meats and cheese Joshua had had brought up from the kitchen.
“Did you know, Isaac? The Earl here is my dearest and oldest friend.”
Henry smiled at the boy, although he looked uncomfortable with the compliment. Isaac watched him in awe, his brown eyes twinkling. To be stood with the adults, to be engaging in conversation with them, was something new for Isaac and he was thrilled his father thought him old enough, mature enough. He stood a little taller, a little straighter.
“He is a very special and kind gentleman,” Joshua continued, his words clear and distinct as he tried to push away the drunkenness.
“Stop, Joshua,” Henry said, blushing at Joshua’s kind words.
“No,” Joshua said, laughing. “I mean it. Listen to me, My Son. You will never meet a more honorable, good man as Henry here.”
Isaac saw Henry squirm in his seat, clearly uneasy by this declaration. He pulled at his cravat as though it choked him, and his cheeks flushed a gentle pink. Isaac wondered at his discomfort. It was not overly warm, there was no reason for it.
“It is your Father who is the honorable one, Isaac. Not I.”
Isaac looked at him curiously, his head tilted. He seemed so sincere, so true, and yet he doubted his own honorability.
Why? It didn’t make sense. Noble men were normally so sure of themselves.
Thomas jumped up then and stood opposite Isaac, next to Henry. Isaac could see the jealousy firing in his eyes and he found that, for once, he was pleased about it. Thomas never had liked it when Isaac got more attention than he and normally, Isaac would be kinder to his brother because of it. That day, though, Isaac simply sneered at him, wanting him to leave him be with the men.
They stared at each other across the way. Thomas stood a few inches from Henry, and Isaac could see that he wanted Henry to put his arm around him, in the same way Joshua had his arm around Isaac.
Anything for a little affection.
“I imagine you are both very noble,” Isaac said.
“Ah, my eldest is a diplomat, too! Imagine that, Henry.” He paused and sighed with a smile. “I have two wonderful sons,” Joshua said, flashing a quick grin to Thomas. But his grin slipped as his voice slurred, as though the alcohol hit him with a sudden force. His eyelids drooped heavily, and Isaac looked at him curiously.
I should like to taste the brandy, so I can feel what Father feels.
“They will grow up to be great, strapping lads.” He coughed, his eyes bulging. “Although my first born here…” he wheezed, unable to catch his breath, “my Isaac…he will become Duke as is…as is—”
“Father?” Isaac turned to look at his father, whose face was turning red. He clutched desperately at his throat, clawing at it in fear, panic, desperately trying to clear it. “Father!”
Isaac, wide-eyed, jumped back just as his father fell forward from his chair and began writhing on the ground, gasping for breath. Isaac stared open-mouthed, unable to look away but not wanting to watch. Terror gripped him, shook through him, and he let out a loud sob.
“Joshua?” Henry, too, stared, wide-eyed but not moving, not doing anything to help, and his words were whispered rather than screamed as Isaac’s were.
Why will you not do something?
Isaac’s words choked him, and he could not plead for help. He couldn’t even turn to look at Henry. All he could do was stare at his panicked, sickened father, and hear his pulse thumping in his ears. Everything seemed to slow, each second lasting a minute, and Isaac heard himself wail, the sound ripping through him, raw and angry and fearful.
Thomas ran to kneel at his father’s side, screeching with a wildness Isaac had never seen before.
“Father,” he cried, and he slid across the tiled floor, his knees bumping into his father’s prostrate body. Thomas cried out again, an animal in pain, and Isaac risked a glance at him. Thomas’ eyes were dull and lifeless, despite the panic in his voice, and Isaac quickly looked away, his breath catching. His brother’s fears did little to help his own, as he tried desperately to calm himself.
Joshua’s movement had slowed. Although he still writhed, it was without the energy and the urgency he had before. His eyes were so wide that they were ringed with white, and his usually pale skin had turned a deep purple in color as the life force drained away.
“Father,” Isaac squeaked, “Father.”
But then he began to shake violently, his body descending into shock, and he heard himself scream, loud and terrified and desperate. “Somebody help!”
Joshua stopped grasping at his throat and his hand fell to his side just as his head lolled in the opposite direction. As he took his final earthly breath, he seemed to glare ominously at his oldest and dearest friend, Henry Allen.
Lady Diana Allen, daughter of the Earl of Estnell, sat on the white, wrought-iron bench in her favorite spot of the garden. She sat sideways, so that only her feet dangled off the edge of the seat, and her long pink gown draped delicately over her legs and the bench itself. It was a magnificent gown made of a delicate satin, feminine and floaty and adorned with lace around the hem. The sleeves puffed and the waistline was high under her chest, and it was one of her favorite gowns, but for the color.
Her bonnet, a similar shade of dusky pink, had flowers wound through the ribbon, and on her lap sat a book of love and adventure.
“Come on, Cocoa.” She reached down and pulled the dog onto her lap. The Pomeranian looked up at her happily, wagging his whole behind rather than just his tail. She let her fingers run through his long, chocolate-colored fur as she looked around her, breathing in the scent of summer.
She raised her face to the sun, feeling the warm rays on her rosy cheeks, and she smiled, content. At one-and-twenty, she was at the peak of her beauty. Her hair, so red and fiery, grew richer and deeper by the year, and it complemented her flawless pale skin. Her blues eyes twinkled with passion and intelligence, and she wore a smattering of freckles across her petite nose that she covered whenever she could.
“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it Cocoa?” She smiled as she looked down at the dog, and she could see he quite agreed. He loved to be in the gardens, too, his little pink tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth as he bounced happily around.
Ahead of her, the lawn went on for as far as she could see, the grass so carefully tendered that it seemed almost like a carpet. In the center of the lawn there stood a simple fountain, and the sound of the trickling water was a percussion to the melody of bird song in the sky. She had laid a part of her skirt across the bench, and Cocoa walked in circles before curling up on it, tucking himself into Diana’s side.
She picked up her book and began to read. It was a story about knights and maidens, of fierce passion and fighting for what was right and good. It was a fairy tale into which she threw herself, somewhere she was allowed, for once, to be free.
She was a polite young lady, with correct manners and a good upbringing, but still she had a streak of rebelliousness that ran through her and a free spirit that shone out in her every action. She was stubborn and flippant, and she said what she thought when she thought it. She had a quick wit and humorous heart, and she lived with a laugh never far from her lips. But above all that, above her chatter and her beauty, above her humor and her intellect, Diana Allen was an utter and hopeless romantic.
“Oh Cocoa,” she said with a sigh. “Do you think I will ever find my hero?”
The dog, of course, paid her no heed, but instead snored softly at her side. She looked down at him and smiled a smile full of love.
“I’ve always got you, haven’t I, Cocoa? And that will have to do for now.”
She sat back, book returned to her lap, and she thought again of love and what it would feel like. She had dreamed of it so often, but never had she experienced it, never had her breath been taken away by some handsome prince. It was that, she wanted. Not a marriage of convenience or finance, but a life filled with love and passion.
One day, she sighed.
She froze when she heard footsteps walking over the gravel path but she did not turn to look, hoping it was one of the gardeners going about his daily duties. She had no desire to speak to anyone or discuss anything.
“Lady Diana, your Father wishes to see you.”
Diana sighed again, her shoulders sagging, and she looked up to see Mary, her lady’s maid, stood over her, a hand held up to her brow against the bright sun. Her mousy-brown hair was tucked neatly into her cotton bonnet, and her brown eyes were alive with her friendship for Diana. She wore a simple muslin gown, the sleeves of which she had pushed up to her elbows against the summer heat, and her dainty feet were slippered.
She was a pretty girl at ten-and-eight, and she had been in the employ of the Allens since the moment she came of age. She had, in many ways, grown up with Diana and her sister, Celine, and because of that they had grown close.
“Oh, really?” Diana could hear the disappointment in her own voice, her eyes downcast.
“I’m afraid so, My Lady,” Mary replied.
“Is there anything the matter, do you think?”
“I don’t think so,” Mary replied with a shrug. “But I am not privy to Lord Estnell’s thoughts.”
Diana smiled at that, enjoying Mary’s wit and her willingness to use it, so different from most of the servants of the house. She closed her book with a thump and nodded her concession. She would do as her father asked.
“It is a shame,” Diana said with a sigh, “for I was enjoying my book here, in the peace and quiet. But I will not disrespect his wishes. I shall come with you.”
She tiptoed off the grass and onto the pathway. It crunched gently beneath her slippered feet, the rhythm of her footsteps matching the beat of her heart. She always felt a bout of anxiety whenever she was summoned to her father, because she feared the state he would be in. She hated seeing him so dejected with life, and yet he rarely seemed anything but.
“Does he seem well today?” she asked Mary, eyeing her cautiously.
“Well enough,” Mary said with a nod. “As well as he usually is, certainly.”
“Not so well at all, then,” Diana muttered.
The house loomed in front of them, large and somewhat sinister. Although it was her home, looking at the house from the outside always sent a shiver down her spine. The gray stone made it look forlorn, and the heavy drapes on the windows made them look like sad and drooping eyes.
It was a cold and empty place, a place her father preferred to keep sparse and functional rather than warm and homely. The walls were bare of paintings and the carpets were plain and simple. The furniture, where there was some, was modest, unassuming, and lacking in any style or design. Diana longed for a home that was modern and warm and full of life.
“We’ll go in the side entrance,” Diana said.
They slipped around the side of the building and entered through the French doors that went straight into the library. While not quite a secret entrance, Diana favored it for its isolation and privacy. There was rarely anyone in the library, thus no one to keep track of her comings and goings, and she preferred it that way. Having servants was wonderful in its way, but it meant she was hardly ever alone.
They wound their way around the large table in the middle of the room—perfect for spreading out books all around you—and exited into the entrance hall. The floors were tiled with a cold but colorful marble, and the ceilings were so high that the entrance became echoey and haunting.
Mary nodded to Diana and took her leave, and Diana stood looking up the stairs, a hand on the bannister. She remembered how different the house was when her mother was still alive, stuffed with soft furnishings and a touch of love. Since her death, her father’s sadness had laid a blanket over everything.
When she got to his study, she knocked on the heavy oak door then turned the brass handle. He looked up from his papers and smiled warmly.
“Diana, come in, please.”
She was pleased to see him smile, although she could see the dark circles beneath his eyes and the way his skin sagged, and that broke her heart. She could tell he was not sleeping well, something that happened with frightening regularity, and she wanted to see him as she did on those rare days when he was full of happiness and energy.
She opened her mouth to voice her concern, to ask again about the nightmares he suffered and the long nights he wandered the corridors, wraithlike and miserable. But she quickly closed it again. It would do no good, that she knew well enough. He would never answer her, in fact he rarely even acknowledged it, instead insisting she was imagining it, that he was fine.
“You wanted to see me, Father?” she said.
There had been a time when he was happy and full of life, but Diana’s memory of those days was distant and vague…and fading. It saddened her, but she had grown used to a father who had forgotten himself and lived as a ghost of who he had once been. All she could do now was care for him the best she could, and make him proud in everything she did.
She took a seat opposite him. Rather than at the desk in front of the window, he sat on one of the leather chairs that were placed on either side of the unlit fireplace. This was his preferred spot, and she often found him there with papers on his lap and scattered over the floor around him.
“Yes,” he said. His warm smile reached his eyes, and he looked at her with love. “Are you well today?”
“Yes, Father, quite well. I have been enjoying a little reading time in the garden. I do so love to be in the garden.”
“How lovely,” Henry replied with a smile, but then he paused and his smile became a grimace of concern. “We have something important to discuss.”
“Oh, yes?” Diana’s heart began to thud in her chest, her breath quickening. She suspected she knew what was to come, and she prayed it would not be what she thought.
“I know we’ve had this conversation before, Diana,” he said with a sigh. “But finding you a suitor really is—”
“Diana, I know you do not agree, but finding you a suitor is of the utmost importance. I can’t have you becoming a spinster.”
He paused and looked at her, a pleading look in his eyes. She stayed silent, letting him say his piece while she bit back her complaints. She, of course, did not wish to become a spinster, either, but that was better than an unwanted marriage.
“I know you dream of love,” he said, softly but with an authoritative air. “But if you do not act soon then you will miss your chance and you will grow old and lonely. That is not a life you want—nor a life I want for you.”
“You are quite correct, Father,” she said, trying to stop herself frowning at him but all the features in her face tightened and tensed. “We have had this conversation many times.” She paused, smiled up at him as though humoring him. “I will marry—I want to marry—but how, when I have no suitable suitor?”
“Well. actually, that’s the very thing I wanted to talk to you about. As you know, your Sister, Celine, has her coming out in a few days.”
“Yes?” Diana asked, anxious as to where this was going. It crept around her, gripping at her.
“I think that would be the ideal chance for you to…shall we say, search for a suitor or two.”
He grinned at her as though he had just offered her a slice of cake. She blinked, unsure what to say for a moment. She did not want to argue with him, especially not given his tired state, but she also did not agree with his point of view. She clenched her jaw tight to stop the words from tumbling out of her.
“Take a good look,” he urged. “For me? You never know where you will find your husband, and your Sister’s coming out is the perfect opportunity.”
“And, please Diana, don’t focus too much on love. That is a benefit, certainly, but you will learn to love any gentleman you marry. Sometimes, you need a push in the right direction, and love will come. Just take a look at what’s on offer, and perhaps you will find someone appropriate, if not perfect.”
She closed her eyes briefly, then sighed. He did not understand—could not, seemingly—and she didn’t think she would ever be able to persuade him. The love that came with time was not the love she wanted. The love that developed was stale, insipid, uninteresting. She wanted passion and love at first sight.
“I will try, Father,” she said eventually. “And I promise to be on my best behavior at the ball. If there are any acceptable suitors, I will make an effort.”
Lord Isaac Campbell, the Duke of Gallonon, picked up the short-stemmed brandy glass from the table and drank it back in a single gulp.
“Another, please,” he said to the servant, who nodded his understanding. He was at the club after a long day’s work, but he couldn’t deny the brandy helped calm his nerves, too.
“Is everything all right?”
Isaac looked over his shoulder to see a gentleman, somewhat older than he, peering at him through his spectacles.
“Quite all right, yes, thank you.” Isaac was polite, although his tone spoke of his surprise at this stranger’s inquiry into his health and his body remained stiff, unwelcoming.
At thirty years old, the Duke was tall and well-built, with straight black hair and a well-trimmed beard. His handsomeness drew many a glance, although he had a modesty that ran deep enough to stop him noticing it. His brown eyes shone with intelligence, and they told a tale of a strong and determined young man with a kind and sympathetic nature.
Isaac had faced many tribulations through his life, from his mother’s death to his father’s murder, and he found himself often sighing with a tiredness that seemed to have settled within him. Life, for the Duke, seemed to have no spark, no light, and he didn’t know how to change that.
“It’s just—please forgive me if I speak out of turn—but that’s the third brandy you’ve had in ten minutes,” the man said, not having moved. “Seems to me the actions of a gentleman with something on his mind.”
“How very astute,” Isaac said with a smile on his lips. He turned fully to face the man, swiveling around in his chair, now enjoying the attentions of this gentleman. “It is nothing serious, though. I am thinking only of wooing a lady.”
“Ah,” the man said knowingly, waving a finger in the air. “Of that, I know a little, although I have been married for many years now. A lady is enough to turn anyone to drink. Would you care to join me? Perhaps I can allay a little of your concern?”
“That would be lovely, thank you. I’m Isaac Campbell, Duke of Gallonon. And you are?”
“Archibald Andrews, Marquess of Lunstable. A pleasure to meet you, Your Grace.”
Isaac rose from his chair and went to join Archibald, waving his hand at the formality.
“Please, call me Isaac. I tire of the title all too quickly.”
“And I. As well as the duties that come along with it. We noble gentlemen work altogether too much, don’t you agree?”
“Yes,” Isaac said. “Yes, I rather do.” He let his mind run to all his duties in running a Dukedom, of how tired it made him, but he was grateful for it all the same.
The waiter arrived then, depositing the brandy on the table. Isaac nodded his thanks then returned his attention to Archibald.
“Wait until you are married,” Andrews said, laughing. “Then your workload will double. Let me tell you, taking on a wife, as pleasant as it sometimes is, can be quite the challenge.”
“Of that I have no doubt,” Isaac replied. “I have a Brother who relies on my rather too much, I’d say. But I love him dearly, and I will do what is necessary to keep the family together.”
“Ah, rather like a wife, then? My own dear lady is of the haranguing variety, I’m afraid, but I would not dream of being without her.”
Isaac laughed, picked up his brandy and inhaled the sweet, strong scent.
“Sometimes it feels like Thomas is, indeed, a wife—although without the benefits of love and passion.”
Isaac took a sip, enjoying the burn in his throat, but letting this one sit a while, rather than drinking it back in one. He was enjoying this conversation with his newfound friend.
“And the young lady you wish to woo, if you don’t mind my asking? She is worthy of becoming Duchess, is she?”
Isaac tilted his head in consideration.
“I don’t really know. I know very little of her, in fact.”
“Then why, Dear Boy, are you even considering it? Surely a marriage of love would be more favorable? As you said yourself, you already have one wife without the added benefits that come with it.”
“Indeed,” Isaac said quickly, realizing he had almost given away his true intentions. “But I am thirty years old now. It really is time for me to take a wife. And I have heard enough of her to be sure we would make good companions. I suppose this evening will tell all I need to know.”
“As you wish, Your Grace,” Andrews said with a sad glint in his eye. “But I would advise against letting propriety get in the way of your happiness. There is more to life than following the rules.”
“I suppose you are right,” Isaac said. “For the meantime, though, I really ought to leave. It has been delightful getting to know you, Andrews. I trust I will see you here another time.”
During the carriage ride home, Isaac thought about the advice Archibald had given him. Love seemed rather too much of an ideal, especially when life seemed to have other plans for him. In fact, the thought of taking a wife at all seemed to him to be most peculiar. It had been only him and his brother, Thomas, for so long that it was difficult to imagine anything else. It was only at his brother’s behest he would be wooing anyone at all.
He thought then of Thomas, of the way in which Isaac had cared for him since their father died. He and Isaac were close—perhaps a little too close—as Thomas took up nearly every moment of Isaac’s free time. He was demanding and insistent, and although Isaac tired of it, he allowed it all the same. Isaac wanted only the best for his brother, and if that meant giving him what he needed, then so be it.
The coach slowed as they pulled up to Gallonon Hall, and Isaac looked up at the imposing building. It was a building that held, for him, mixed emotions—it was his home and had been for his entire life, but it was also the setting for his father’s death and it still held touches of his parents’ design.
It was not tall, but long, a grand entrance in the middle of an extensive stretch of brickwork. The stone was gray and had been carefully carved by the best masons in the country, and the windows were delicately draped with muslin and brocade. At the door, a servant had already opened the door and informed the butler of his arrival, and around him Isaac could see the gardeners busy at their work.
“Good evening, Your Grace,” the butler said as he took his coat and hat.
“Good evening, Hobbes. Is my Brother here?”
“Of course. He is in east wing, Your Grace.”
As if he’d be anywhere else.
“Then we shall dine together. Please pass on the message. I expect to see him right away.”
“As you wish, Your Grace.”
Isaac made his way straight to the dining room and waited for his brother to appear. It was a long, thin room, the mahogany table stretching out long enough to comfortably seat twelve. Across it lay a pristine white tablecloth, and over that a strip of white lace. Already, place settings had been laid for Isaac and his brother—one at either end of the table—and Isaac drummed his fingers on the table as he waited.
When Thomas did finally saunter in, he wore his usual sullen expression, matched by his sloping walk and his seeming lack of interest in anything. Isaac wondered—not for the first time—where the happy, mischievous boy of their childhood had gone.
Hobbes quickly followed and took up his position near the side cabinet, a white tea towel draped across his forearm. He looked pointedly at the wall, and he moved little enough that it was easy to forget he was there.
“Good evening, Thomas,” Isaac said, looking up from his seat. Thomas merely grunted in reply, plodded to his own chair, and pulled it out with a huff. “How has your day been?”
“All right,” Thomas said. with a shrug. He sagged into the chair, not looking at Isaac, then motioned for a glass of wine. He drank from it immediately, a long and thirsty gulp, then put the glass back down with a thud.
At eight-and-twenty, Thomas Campbell had none of the good looks of his brother. His eyes were dark but small and beady, and they were forever matched by the heavy circles beneath them. His skin was blotchy and rarely clear, with flaking, dry patches appearing regularly, no matter what he tried. He was tall but much too slim for his frame, and that gave him a fragile look, as though he might break in half or crumple under his own weight. He had grown into a bitter and impulsive man, one whose anger ran so deep it couldn’t be separated from who he was, and Isaac often had trouble convincing him to converse.
“Did you do anything?” Isaac asked, urging for conversation.
Thomas rarely smiled, except when caught up in some sort of scheme, and even then it was more a smirk than anything else. Isaac often despaired of his brother, did not know what to do to help him grow into a man instead of the miserable little boy he was trapped in. And yet, his heart cried out for his brother, pity and empathy and love all rolled up into one. He dearly wished he could find a way to entice Thomas back to a life worth living, and he wouldn’t stop trying until he had.
“I see,” Isaac said, sighing at the lack of enthusiasm. “Well I had a pleasant afternoon in the club. Had a lovely conversation with the Marquess of Lunstable.”
“Oh,” Thomas said, clearly uninterested.
“Have you met him before?” Isaac asked, trying again.
“Perhaps,” Thomas said with a shrug, his word toneless and dead.
“He was quite interesting. We discussed the ways of the fairer sex. They are so different from us menfolk.”
Thomas said nothing, merely stared down at his place setting, his lip jutting out with sullen disinterest. They lapsed into an awkward silence, Thomas fiddling with the edge of the tablecloth while Isaac stared at him—both amazed at and not at all surprised by his brother’s childish behavior.
The door swung open then, and the maid brought in their dinner. It was a simple meal of chicken pie with potatoes, topped with a little gravy, but it was one of Isaac’s favorites and his mouth watered at the smell of it, at the sight of the steam rising.
He nodded his thanks to the maid as his plate was set down in front of him, then he looked up at Thomas, determined to entice him into conversation one way or another.
“It’s the ball tomorrow, Lady Celine’s coming out,” he said. He knew this would be a topic his brother would approve of. It seemed, more and more, that it was the only thing he ever thought about.
Thomas’ face came alive, just as Isaac had suspected, a sudden and bright interest in his expression.
“Yes,” he said. “I have been counting the days. It seems to have come along terribly quickly, even though we have been waiting for years. Isn’t that peculiar?”
“Yes, it is rather,” Isaac said, creasing his brow.
He didn’t approve of his brother’s eagerness in this matter, but he understood it at least. This was a moment they had discussed and planned for many years, the beginnings of their scheme being set into motion, and it seemed Thomas had little else in his life.
While Isaac was busy running his Dukedom, Thomas did nothing but lounge around, drinking or reading. Isaac suspected finding some sort of employment would be beneficial for his brother, but he always knew how unlikely that was to happen.
“Do you think you’ll be able to woo her?” Thomas asked. He leaned forward, knife in one hand, fork in the other, his beady eyes sparkling with the expectation, with the hope.
“Lady Celine?” Isaac said. “Of course I can woo her. I have a plan to help her to fall for my charms.”
He bit into a mouthful of pie, the pastry buttery and crumbly, the gravy rich and thick.
“I’m sure you won’t have any issue,” Thomas said, looking down at his plate and picking at his potatoes. “The ladies seem to find you charming enough. I’ve even heard one or two call you handsome.”
Isaac laughed at that, and at Thomas’ resentment of it. Thomas never had learned how to socialize or communicate, let alone to attract young ladies.
“I certainly hope not. If I cannot woo her, I fear for my manhood.” He laughed, wanting only to lighten the mood, but Thomas looked back at him with a darkened expression.
“This is no game, Isaac. You cannot get this wrong.”
“I know,” Isaac replied, suddenly serious. “We have discussed it enough times. I know exactly what I need to do, with whom, and when. I just hope it will work.”
“It will work,” Thomas said, relaxing a little. “It has to. We’ve certainly spent long enough organizing it, as you say.”
“That much is true,” Isaac said, but he still could not rid himself of the ball of anxiety in his chest.
Something didn’t feel quite right, although it never did when they discussed the plan. He agreed wholeheartedly with Thomas, but sometimes still it felt as though he was being led by his brother down a path he may not have found himself on otherwise. He ate slowly, contemplatively, but his brow was furrowed and his eyes stared at nothing.
“You’re not having doubts now, are you?” Thomas asked, his cutlery-filled fists resting on the edge of the table. He stared at Isaac and Isaac felt as though Thomas could see into his very soul. Thomas had the power to make Isaac shiver under his gaze.
“Doubts? No, of course not. Why would I be having doubts?”
“Good,” Thomas replied, his voice authoritative, like a parent warning his child. “Because we need to do this. For Father. Don’t forget our purpose.”
The following day, Isaac straightened his cravat in front of the looking glass. He wore black pumps beneath his cream-colored trousers, ready for the dancing he intended all evening. His white shirt and green waistcoat were covered by a dark tailcoat with shiny gold buttons and velvet lapels, and he would wear a top hat with a matching green ribbon tied around it. He gazed at his reflection, tilting his head this way and that in appraisal.
I am, at least, not ugly.
He sat on the edge of his bed and picked up his top hat. He rapidly brushed at it, removing what little dust had settled on it as he let his mind wander. Nerves ran through him, although he loathed to admit it. He had not attended a ball with a set intention before, it had always only been to socialize. Now, he would focus on their only goal—to get the Lady Celine to fall in love with him.
He felt his gut twist. He didn’t know if they were doing the right thing or not, but he knew they had to do something. Thomas was correct about it—their father deserved some kind of justice—but it didn’t make it any easier to do. Isaac was not, by nature, a harsh or vindictive man.
His chambers were small and cozy, just enough space for his bed, a small chair and desk, his looking mirror of course. He could never face the thought of moving into the master bedroom of the house—his parents’ bedroom—and so, Thomas took the larger rooms while Isaac felt more comfortable in a smaller, simpler space.
He looked up when there came a knock on the door.
“Come in,” he called.
“Don’t you look dapper, Brother,” Thomas said as he entered, and he looked Isaac up and down appraisingly, much as Isaac himself had in the looking glass. “You’re sure to win Lady Celine over looking like that. No lady would be foolish enough to turn you away.”
Isaac looked up at his brother, a half-smile snaking up the left side of his face. It made him look mischievous, like a schoolboy up to no good, but it was an endearing habit that made Thomas chuckle. It was the smile he gave when he was uncertain, when he didn’t know if he even wanted to smile.
“Are you nervous?” Thomas asked. He leaned against the edge of the desk, his hands curling around the table top and his shoulders held up near his ears. “Because you don’t need to be.”
He was unshaven, his chin covered in a rough stubble that matched his grimace and the sloppy nature of his dress. His hair, too, was wanton, unkempt and uncombed. Isaac wondered idly if he had only just got out of bed at such a late hour of the day.
“Of course I’m not nervous,” Isaac said, looking down and still fiddling with his hat, but that wasn’t entirely true. In his heart, he felt a flutter of anxiety and he wondered how he would get through the evening.
“Good luck, then, Brother. This is where it starts. We have waited quite long enough, and now the lady is finally coming out, we shall have our vengeance—”
Did you like this preview? Please, don't forget to leave me a comment below!
Want to read how the story ends?
Games of Desire for Lady Hellion is now live on Amazon!